Art historians study the visual and tangible objects humans make and the structures humans build. Beginning with the earliest Greco-Roman art critics on, scholars have studied objects their makers consciously manufactured as “art” and to which the artists assigned formal titles. But today’s art historians also study a multitude of objects their creators and owners almost certainly did not consider to be “works of art.” Few ancient Romans, for example, would have regarded a coin bearing their emperor’s portrait as anything but money.
Today, an art museum may exhibit that coin in a locked case in a climate-controlled room, and scholars may subject it to the same kind of art historical analysis as a portrait by an acclaimed Renaissance or modern sculptor or painter.
The range of objects art historians study is constantly expanding and now includes, for example, computer-generated images, whereas in the past almost anything produced using a machine would not have been regarded as art. Most people still consider the performing arts—music, drama, and dance—as outside art history’s realm because these arts are fleeting, impermanent media. But during the past few
decades even this distinction between “fine art” and “performance art” has become blurred. Art historians, however, generally ask the same kinds of questions about what they study, whether they employ a restrictive or expansive definition of art.